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Lapwai (“LAP-way”) was established in 1836 as the first mission to the Nez Perce Indians. Reverend Henry Spalding formed the mission under the Nez Perce word meaning “the place of butterflies.” The story of Henry is intriguing as he was part of a group of four Presbyterians headed west from St. Louis on a journey to convert the “heathens” to Christianity. Although Henry fell madly in love with Narcissa Prentiss, she did not share his sentiments and instead married Dr. Marcus Whitman. Henry went on to marry Eliza Hart, and despite the awkward feelings of the past, the four set out on their mission together in just one wagon. On July 4, 1836, the quartet reached the Nez Perce territory where their initial fears were put to rest with a warm welcome. Since Narcissa and Eliza safely became the first white women to cross the Rockies, other potential emigrants began to view the West as a place for families, not just men.

After meeting the Nez Perce, the two couples carried out separate plans, with Marcus and Narcissa journeying to present day Walla Walla, Washington. Enamored with the possibilities of missioning to the Nez Perce, Henry and Eliza stayed in Idaho. Unfortunately, Marcus and Narcissa did not experience the same long-lasting welcome from their intended missionees, the Cayuse Indians. When a journeying wagon train infected the area with measles, Whitman successfully cured the whites, but his treatment failed to heal the Indians who possessed no natural disease immunity. Subsequently, many Indians died from the measles while in Whitman’s care, and the Cayuse thereby assumed that their once trusted friend and missionary was actually killing them. In 1847, the Cayuse retailiated, killing Marcus, Narcissa, and twelve other white mission workers.

Henry and Eliza proceeded to build their mission near Lapwai where Eliza learned to read and write the Nez Perce language. As part of her mission work, she encouraged other area white settlers to do the same and was responsible for teaching several homesteaders the Nez Perce language so that communication barriers were non-existent. In 1838 she gave birth to a daughter, Eliza, who became the first white child born in Idaho. Henry, meanwhile, built a cabin and taught the Native Americans farming skills. He soon built a sawmill, gristmill, and blacksmith shop and raised corn and potatoes as staples. Word spread of the mission and its agricultural potential, and more Nez Perce began to settle around the mission and cultivate their own plots. In 1839, Henry installed the region’s first irrigation system, and the area boomed with activity. After word of the Whitman’s massacre reached the Spaldings, however, they decided to leave the area. They moved to the Willamette Valley and resumed farming. Eliza died in 1851, and Henry moved back to Lapwai in 1863 where he later died in 1874. He and Eliza are both buried there. Today, the site of the historic Lapwai mission rests east of Lewiston in the Nez Perce National Historic Park.

In addition to the mission that took the name Lapwai, A US Army Fort was established here in 1862 under the same name. The fort was intended to protect Native Americans and their land from white homesteaders. Ironically, the fort later served to protect the settlers from Native American aggression.

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